Why Are Most High-Performance Cars Automatic Only?

Happy Friday, good people of Jalopnik, and welcome to your weekly serving of Letters to Doug, wherein you write letters to Doug and Doug reads them while eating Cheez-Its.


If you’d like to participate in Letters to Doug, you can! Just send me an e-mail at Letters2Doug@gmail.com, which is my official “Letters to Doug” e-mail address. Although I cannot promise I will use your letter on Jalopnik, I can promise I will read it, and possibly laugh at it.

This week’s letter comes to us from a reader I’ve named Phil. Phil lives in Boston, and he writes:

Hi Doug,

Like the title states, my question for you is simple. Why do the majority of the great sport sedans come only with an automatic? Such classics as the Audi S6/S8, MB CLS55/63, MB E55/E63, BMW M5/550i, Lexus ISF, and Porsche Panamera all have awesome engines but all only come in automatic. If these are targeted for the sporting enthusiast, why wouldn’t these come with manual transmissions?


Phil from Boston

Now, because Phil is from Boston, I fear that he may try to fight me if I don’t answer this question correctly, or at least he might find a way to sit next to me on a cross-country flight and spend five hours explaining how Bill Belichick is his personal hero. So I’m going to help you out here, Phil, and tell you the simple truth: these cars don’t come with a stick shift because nobody would buy them.

Of course, I don’t actually mean that nobody would buy them. There are 11 people who would buy them, and they’re all members of the BMW forums. They’re the second-most vocal members of the Internet, right after Neil deGrasse Tyson fans. And they are convinced that these cars would be huge sellers if they came with a stick shift. After all: people who like performance also like shifting their own gears, right?


What I have learned about people who spend $100,000 on luxury sedans is the following: they do not like shifting their own gears. They like skiing in Switzerland. They couldn’t care less about shifting their own gears. They just want a fast, exciting, high-performance sedan that goes along with the image they want to project, which is: this guy has an enormous amount of money, and also a fast, exciting high-performance sedan.

In fact, if I had to bet, I’d suggest that the people who buy cars like this actively don’t want three pedals. They don’t want to deal with that stuff. In most cases, they don’t want to learn how to deal with that stuff. They want to be able to stomp their foot down and go fast when they want – but mostly they just want people to see they’re driving an AMG model and not some base-level 350 version, which they believe is designed for a) suburban realtors, and b) giving them something to drive while their AMG is in the shop.

Now, I know what you’re thinking here, Phil, and that is: but so many enthusiasts clearly want a stick shift!


And I agree with you. Most enthusiasts do want a stick shift. The problem is that most enthusiasts also see the pitfalls with buying a new AMG product; namely, that in four years it will be worth only slightly more than laundry detergent. So enthusiasts tend to buy used cars, and high-end car companies aren’t in the business of tailoring their product lineup to reach the used market. They are in the business of offering insane lease deals in order to make people think they’re more successful than they really are.

So, in essence, what happens is this: the automaker knows there’s some demand for a stick shift high-performance car. But the automaker also knows that the cost to develop a stick shift performance car is enormous – especially when it’s only really going to suit a few dozen buyers.


So what they do is, they devote all their resources to making a good automatic transmission, and then they spend a lot of time and money trying to convince people that the automatic is the only way to go. For instance: I remember when the IS-F came out, and Lexus said the transmission shifted in something like 10 milliseconds. Then they refined it, and it was 5 milliseconds. Then they refined it again and they said it could only be measured in a) lightning strikes, or b) hummingbird wing flaps. The GS-F transmission, they say, shifts in two hummingbird wing flaps.

So there’s your answer, Phil from Boston. As much as it might pain you to hear it, the market just isn’t there for high-end stick-shift performance sedans. And as Ferrari, and McLaren, and Lamborghini have proven, the market isn’t there for high-end stick shift sports cars, either. Pretty soon, the only way you’re going to get a fast car with a manual transmission is if you buy used. You sad soul, buying a used car. Maybe you can discuss skiing in North Carolina, with the other suburban realtors.


@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars, which his mother says is “fairly decent.” He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer.



How is that a good question? I feel like the answer is painfully obvious. Those cars aren’t geared towards enthusiasts, they’re geared towards people who want to walk around saying ‘I bought the best!’ In fact, I know a couple people who own a couple of those models, and they have no clue about cars. They just went out and bought the ‘best’ version of whatever they were looking at.